It is easy to feel like it is the end of the world. But there is some consolation in the fact that this is not a new sentiment.
It is easy to feel like it is the end of the world. But there is some consolation in the fact that this is not a new sentiment. When the convent at Oby is consumed by black plague in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, the infirmaress Dame Susanna observes this and thinks “everyone would die, for it was the end of the world.”
It is not the end of the world, though. The novel continues for another 350 pages. In the midst of the plague, a drunk arrives at the door and poses as a priest to gain entry, despite the risk of sickness. The nuns allow him to stay, despite his lack of credentials, because they have no priest to confess to before they die. Ralph – now, Sir Ralph because of his sudden vocation – remains the priest at the convent for the rest of his life.
This story gives the appearance of plot to a book that does not rightly have one. In an introduction, Claire Harman quotes a letter in which Warner explains, “I am still inclined to call it People Growing Old. It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant.” Sir Ralph’s story is just one of many. The political struggles within the convent – how one prioress or treasurer comes to hold that position – are another. The spiritual struggle of the nuns – to remain outside of the world while still physically in it – yet another. The book is very much about this “gaggle of silly women,” as the community describes them when the convent is first organized, but Warner’s chief interest is the community and not the individuals that make it up.
The Corner That Held Them is a story of finance, too. And perhaps preeminently it is a story of the running and maintaining of an unimportant convent in 14th century England – an “out-of-the-way place” where the first prioress says “anything or nothing” might happen. The introduction gives another insight: Warner wrote it following “Marxian principles, because I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of the monastic life, you’d have to put in all their finances; how they made their money, how they dodged about from one thing to another and how very precarious it all was.”
This spirit imbues the whole novel. Warner, an anti-fascist and active member of the Communist Party in England, viewed history – and the novel – as a story not of Great Men, but of small lives accumulating, and most of these lives, women’s. Writing the novel throughout World War II (it was first released in 1948), it must have been difficult to maintain this line. Warner’s commitment to the primacy of the community over the individual in the novel is to her credit. The convent at Oby, filled with women whose lives were seemingly less significant than even their worldly counterparts, is depicted vividly, humorously and even tenderly.
Warner’s rich prose is the ideal window through which to view these lives and to give them life on the page. Of one nun she writes: “A sensation of unmitigable loneliness crushed her spirit. She lived with these women and she would end her days among them; yet she understood them no better than they understood her. There can hardly be intimacy in the cloister: before intimacy can be engendered there must be freedom, the option to approach or move away.” This sense of personal and spiritual exhaustion pervades the novel. A prioress reflects on her religious life (within which she has achieved a high position) by stating that “in the end I shall burn out and another candle will be fixed in my stead.” The limits of history are the limits of these women’s lives.
The physical is attended to as well. One of the great accomplishments of The Corner That Held Them is that in its quest to render the life of a whole community, not lifting one character above another, it replaces individualistic plotting with moments of descriptive clarity, doing justice to these women’s lives by merely telling the truth. “The sunlight fell on the page and lit her scarred face,” Warner writes, bringing the reader in intimate contact with one of the nuns, “and the few light eyelashes stuck in her swollen eyelids. Her hand, moving in the sunlight, displayed all its defects, the toad-skin, the misshapen nails, the look of being ingrained with dirt which overlies unwholesome blood.”
There are dozens of nuns in the book – Dame Susanna, Dame Alice, Dame Sibilla, etc. – the main timeframe of which spans 33 years (the life of Christ, an arbitrary but meaningful mark of time to these monastics), and while, as a rule, “one monastic must resemble another” Warner gives them each a thread in the tapestry that is differentiated, making the whole all the richer. Disappointment is the lot of many of them, however. After a lifetime of work spent financing a grand spire for the convent, Warner describes Prioress Alicia’s feeling at its completion: “she did not try to hide from herself the sense of anticlimax which accompanied the completion of her spire . . . . It was finished; but ‘over and done with’ was the truer word.”
Anti-climax is the rule in The Corner That Held Them. History happens, but as a tangle of events the importance of which is impossible to state with any certainty. This rendering of time is what brings the entire project together so brilliantly. One character, the son of a de-frocked nun, notes that “it seemed that nothing new ever happened or ever would.” Dame Sibilla, at the end of the novel, says that “there are two truths, perhaps three truths, perhaps a dozen. In any case there is the exact and mortal truth which marches with the living and there is the other truth whose dominion opens out with death.” The first truth is perhaps what causes her to slip quietly away from her life as a nun and embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The second truth is what Warner is after. And the wall between these truths is death and time. Talking to an aged Sir Ralph, one character asks “I suppose seven years seems no time at all to you?” Warner renders the priest’s response thusly: “‘No time at all,’ said the old man airily. ‘Some deaths, of course. Some births. Lambs, and so forth.’” Same as it ever was.
With The Corner That Held Them, Warner wrote a novel about what it felt like to live in the 14th century, and in doing so wrote a novel about what it feels like to live at all. It is difficult to imagine a higher accomplishment for a novelist.